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Murder is Parker's delicate art

September 29, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

After writing 12 novels in nearly 20 years set in the stretch of the Sun Belt south of Los Angeles, T. Jefferson Parker has earned the title of bard of Orange County. He's familiar with all that is shabby and grandiose about the area, knows it intimately enough to see past the Jane Jacobs nightmare of sterile industrial parks, socially engineered gated communities and party-hearty beach towns.

But as a mystery writer, he recognizes a particular kind of ugliness beneath the surface of suburban sprawl.

"The promise you make when you sit down to write a story about a young woman who's raped and decapitated is that there will be rivers of truth underneath that will sweep the reader away," he says. "In a place like Orange County, you see the collusion between development and politics so baldly. It's so open and plain, so transparent. San Diego is the same way and so is L.A. But you see it more clearly here."

Outside a restaurant on the San Clemente pier on an 85-degree September day, the Santa Ana winds blow hard enough to make a line of tall, skinny lollipop palm trees shimmy against the cloudless sky. The sun is painfully bright, as bright as if a celestial rheostat had been dialed up to maximum. The cliffs of Dana Point hug the coast to the north. To the south, nothing clutters the view of open water. What bad things could possibly happen in this natural paradise?

"Love, lust, murder, betrayal, suffering and redemption all parade by as a brilliant tale-spinner once again has his way with us," reads the Kirkus Review's appraisal of Parker's latest novel, "California Girl." That's nice, as far as it goes, but Parker says he had much more on his mind than mayhem when he planned the book.

"I set out to write the great Orange County novel," he says. "I wanted to write about where I came from."

It seems that under every mystery writer's skin beats the heart of a novelist who yearns to transcend the genre. Reviewers feed that desire by bestowing left-handed compliments that inevitably insult mysteries and thrillers. Writing about Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, who spin tales of crime in New York and Boston, respectively, New York Times critic Caryn James describes them as "literary novelists who happen to write about criminal types, but whose work soars above genre fiction."

"I think we all secretly want to transcend the genre," Parker admits. "Chandler wrestled with that very heavily. He always wanted to be considered a literary writer. He died embittered about his position in the world of letters. I don't mind being called a mystery writer. Some of my books are patently mysteries and others are not. If it says mystery writer on my gravestone, I could care less. It's a term of respect, if it's done well."

Since "Laguna Heat" marked his high-profile debut in 1985, Parker has produced several bestsellers and has been favorably compared to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Thomas Harris and Michael Connelly. "Silent Joe," Parker's bittersweet thriller about an Orange County deputy's search for his father's killer, won an Edgar Award as best novel of 2001 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery/thriller.

Parker is particularly admired for creating complex characters and, unlike many of his peers who write series that follow predictable formulas, he's only brought one detective back for a second and third appearance. Nevertheless, he wanted to address bigger themes in "California Girl."

Now 50, he was 5 when his family moved from Los Angeles to a tidy one-story house in a "Leave It to Beaver" neighborhood in Tustin, a typical inland town. Orange County wasn't immune to the seismic social shifts most of the country experienced during his adolescence and young adult years. His novel spans from 1954 to the present, but most of the story takes place in 1968. "The things that were happening in Orange County in 1968 are a crucible of what was going on in the state and the nation," the author says.

Parker watched the character of Tustin change as bulldozers decimated acres of orange groves. When the agriculture went, the community lost its elemental purpose. "It became just a place to sleep and raise children," he says. "Seeing the simple agrarian citrus groves falling to the tract homes and the condominiums when I was growing up was particularly meaningful and difficult. There was a lot of activity going on in little Orange County that's been kind of overlooked. Over the years, we've seen that those were seminal times."

Although Orange County has had difficulty living down a reputation as the dull, conventional backwater where right-wing politics flourished and Richard Nixon was born, the counterculture had a presence there as well. Timothy Leary and Charles Manson appear in the novel, their imaginary activities based on true accounts.

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